Book: Psychogeography (pocket edition)

In the context of genres and placing my own work, I feel there may be some connection with psychogeography. When I think back to the beginning of my serious photography, it was in street photography and the pleasure of wandering unfamiliar streets. Though, I had not heard the term ‘psychogeography’ back then.

I read Merlin Covey’s book Psychogeography earlier in my OCA studies and revisited it now to understand more about the genre. I note here points relevant to my own work.

While psychogeography is strongly connected with Guy Debord and the Situationist International movement (founded 1957), Covey argues that its practice and reflection in literature (even if not labelled as such) pre-dates Debord with English writers like Daniel Defoe (1660 – 1731). Particularly influential is Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, which gets a nod in later psychogeographical works including the films of Patrick Keiller (London and Robinson in Space). Importantly, it is not a practice that should be too strongly attached to wandering the streets of Paris, even if that is where the term was coined. Debord defined the term: ‘Psychogeography – The study of the specific effects of the geographical environment , consciously organized or not , on the emotions and behaviour of individuals’ However, Covey is enthusiastic in connecting the practice to the streets of London and authors writing about those streets.

It is seen as a practice associated with city streets, kicking against the flows organised by town planners: ‘the mental traveller who remakes the city in accordance with his own imagination is allied to the urban wanderer who drifts through the city streets ; the political radicalism that seeks to overthrow the established order of the day is tempered by an awareness of the city as eternal and unchanging ; and the use of antiquarian and occult symbolism reflects the precedence given to the subjective and the anti – rational over more systematic modes of thought .’ . I may find following the route of a canal, even if I step away from it on occasion, a very different experience to wandering a multidimensional city. I think for a psychogeographic experience, it will be necessary to step away from the path and explore what lies around it in the towns and cities along the route. At the same time, wandering too far would make the work no longer about the canal. I feel that this would be the practices of a genre positively shaping my practice, rather than it being an adjustment of practice so the work better fits a genre.

The practice involves a mindful approach that challenges our usual perceptions, as Covey suggests, ‘transforming our experience of everyday life and replacing our mundane existence with an appreciation of the marvellous … street and the stroll was a crucial practice in its attempt to subvert and challenge our perceptions.’ . I think bringing a mindful or contemplative approach to my work will be important to its success – otherwise I could miss what is hidden in the banality of long empty stretches of little used industrial-age motorways.

Covey observes Debord’s concern about the ‘banalisation’ driven by modernity and mass consumerism, and alludes to the ‘spectacle’ – the essential emptiness of modern life is obscured behind an elaborate and spectacular array of commodities and our immersion in this world of rampant consumerism leaves us disconnected from the history and community that might give our lives meaning’. . I don’t yet know what I will find along the 29¼ route, but I suspect commercialism may be limited. I’m perhaps more likely to experience modernity through suburbanism. As psychogeography concerns itself with the negative psychological and geographic impact of modernism, my work could also be aligned to the genre through this.

Covey’s work concludes by examining psychogeography today, citing writers such as JG Ballard, Iain Sinclair and Patrick Keiller. Interestingly for my project, Ballard regards the ‘city as a semi-extinct form’, he thinks, ‘the suburbs are more interesting than people will let on … you find uncentered lives … more freedom to explore imagination and obsessions.’ . I think this thread and Ballard’s work is worth following up – the notion that the banality of the suburbs dissolves community and is replaced by self-obsession.

Covey’s book has cemented the idea that my own work could be placed in the psychogeography genre. Also, an interest in revisiting Robinson Crusoe (last read as a child) and looking at JG Ballard’s work.

References

Coverley, M. (2012) Psychogeography [Kindle edition]. (Amazon Kindle) (s.l.): Oldcastle Books.

Exercise: psychogeography

This exercise poses a question related to psychogeography – ‘do you think it’s possible to produce an objective depiction of a place or will the outcome always be influenced by the artist? Does it even matter?’

It is helpful to first be clear on what is meant by objective. A dictionary definition of objective: ‘(of a person or their judgement) not influenced by personal feelings or opinions in considering and representing facts:  historians try to be objective and impartial.   Contrasted with subjective. Not dependent on the mind for existence; actual:  a matter of objective fact.’

There may be an argument that because a camera is a machine the depiction it renders is objective. However, this would be a fallacy. The photographer takes numerous decisions in making an image. Which place to photograph, when to visit the place, where to stand when photographing it, what technical settings to use when taking the photograph and how to approach post production et cetera.

Examples of these decisions can be illustrated in the works referenced in the OCA materials. In Mark Power’s 26 Different Endings he made one photograph at locations from each of the fifty-six pages meeting the edge of the London A to Z. The place was influenced by his choice of process for making the work and within that process, which place he chose from each of the page edges. On arriving at the place, he chose where to stand, which perspective to photograph, when to press the shutter and what to include in the frame. If he took several photographs, he would have edited to arrive at a final selection, making another choice. His choice of camera, lens and film (if not digital) would have affected the rendering of the images. As would his approach to post production.

There is always a chain of decisions leading to the making of an image, which perhaps make absolute objective depiction an impossibility. It is debatable whether there can be complete objectivity in any field and the question has been researched, for example, in Douglas Heather’s The Irreductable Complexity of Objectivity . But does it matter this matter when making art works? In art the subjective perspective of the photographer is expected, along with a voice and style that make that perspective interesting. In contrast, when viewing a forensic photograph of a crime scene, one would expect strict conventions to be followed.

I suggest that the lack of objectivity does not matter and perhaps it is even completely irrelevant in the context of art.

References

Society of the Spectacle: Guy Debord

Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle was introduced in the course material within the context of psychogeography as a prominent text for the Situationist International movement, to which psychogeography links itself. I’ve owned a copy of the book for some time but confess have never read it as I was put off by the dense text and no real imperative to read it. However, as the ideas of psychogeography are relevant to my project, I’ve now read it and include a few notes here.

  • It is not just me who finds the text dense and I found out that this style was apparently typical of the Situationist movement. There is a Guardian online ‘Big Ideas’ podcast , in which the work is discussed and provides a simplified overview of the work.
  • While the book was originally published in 1967, it felt contemporary, as if Debord had predicted the future. It is a grim and relentless attack on the flaws of contemporary society as (or perhaps more) relevant today as it was in 1967.
  • The book is wide ranging in its scope, and my notes sketch only ideas that may be relevant to my work. The references are to the paragraph numbers – the whole book is labelled in this way, like a bible of discontentment.
  • ‘The spectacle is not a collection of images; it is a social relation between people that is mediated by images’ . This understanding seems critical in the context of visual culture – it speaks to the idea that meaning is derived through culture and society, not through images themselves. It also plays to the deception that images convey reality and do not need reading or decoding. Therefore, Debord argues that ‘… life is presented as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has receded into a representation’ . Arguably, just parts of the world were once subsumed into religious ideology, many parts of the world are now under the spell of the spectacle (resulting from capitalist ideology).
  • Debord talks of a sense of alienation as the dominant images destroy understanding of life and what is important to self; ‘The spectator does not feel at home anywhere, because the spectacle is everywhere’ . To me this connects to the mindful contemplation of space that is part of psychogeography – stepping back with a fresh perspective and trying to see things as they really are. It also speaks to the attraction of the spaces in edgelands (a canal can be one), where the spectacle is mostly absent – there is little commercial interest in these backwaters and they offer a place of escape.
  • As an aside, Debord references the ‘chronicle’, which one might equate to the ‘archive’, as ‘the expression of the irreversible time of power … the owners of history have given time a direction, a direction which is also a menaing’ . This echoes Allan Sekula’s thoughts on the archive.
  • Chapter VII deals with territorial domination and is particularly relevant to my work.
    • Tourism ‘the opportunity to go and see what has been banalised’ . I’m not sure that holidays on canals (at least in the UK are hugely popular as ‘there is nothing to see’).
    • Urbanism is the modern method for solving the ongoing problem of safeguarding class power by atomising the workers who have been dangerously brought together ..’. As one walks the edgelands, there is an awareness of the urban sprawl and the apparent absence of community spaces within the ‘mass of thinly spread semi-urban tissue’. It had not occurred to me that this might be by design, rather than economic disinterest.
  • Finally, I mention Debord’s definition of culture; ‘is the general sphere of knowledge and of representation of lived experences within historical societies divided into classes.’

I’m pleased that I eventually read this book as it contains some special thinking that looks outside of what we are immersed within. It helps articulate what many people may intuitively feel about the world and explains an attraction to the edgelands.

References